Niyo: Don't trust the Lions, trust history

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Glendale, Ariz. — So whom do you trust now if you’re a Lions fan? The offense? The defense? The coaching staff? The front office?

No, the only thing you can trust is what you see and what you know. You trust history, as well as a franchise’s uncanny ability to repeat it.

And after a season opener that saw the Lions lose everything they thought they’d gained in a 27-27 tie in the desert, that parched feeling in your mouth has to be a terribly familiar one.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford throws a completion to running back J.D. McKissic who gets a first down, but the play did not count because a time out was called late in the fourth quarter.

So is the knot in your stomach after you watched the Lions blow an 18-point fourth-quarter lead with remarkable ease, playing not to lose and then doing exactly that, only to discover again what everyone who roots for this team understands so well.

“Anytime you don’t win,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said, in a media session that was as brief as this game was long, “it doesn’t feel very good.”

It could feel worse, I suppose. A year ago, the Lions exited Week 1 looking like a complete mess, embarrassed on national television by the New York Jets in Matt Patricia’s head coaching debut at Ford Field.

But it’d be hard to rationalize this stalemate in Arizona — against an opponent that's practically starting over from scratch this season — as anything resembling progress, given the circumstances.

Calamity of missteps

Detroit turned what looked to be a stellar defensive effort into a coming-out party for Kyler Murray and the rookie-riddled Cardinals roster, wasted a record-setting debut from their own first-round pick, T.J. Hockenson, and then seemed to find every imaginable way down the stretch to ruin their Sunday night flight home from Phoenix.

A game-clinching third-down conversion? Nope. How about a timeout instead?

A critical red-zone stop on the Cardinals’ desperate 2-minute drive in the fourth quarter? Ha! Good one. Try a facemask penalty.

Again and again, opportunity knocked. And almost every time, the Lions opened the wrong door.

And when it was time to assess what had happened, long after Stafford had flung one final pass out of bounds to run off the final seconds of overtime, the door to the visitors’ locker room opened and Patricia came hobbling in on crutches.

“Obviously not the way we wanted the game to end,” he said. “Overall, we’ve got to finish the game better. We’ve got to coach it better at the end, we’ve got to play it better at the end, and we’ve got to go out and try to find a way to win.”

That they couldn’t might say a lot about where this season is headed. How they respond a week from now in the home opener against the Chargers certainly will.

But again, it’s impossible to trust this year will be different than last — or just about any other, frankly — if you’re a beleaguered Lions fan who sat through Sunday’s game, from the promising start to the ugly collapse and the wholly unsatisfying end.

“Too many mistakes to overcome there, especially at the end,” Patricia said. “We can’t have the turnovers, can’t have penalties. And for us, we’ve just got to close out better, and it’s gotta start with me: We’ve got to coach better in order to finish.”

Or maybe coach less? That was the nagging feeling as the game frittered away late. As a defense that gave up 100 total yards through three quarters suddenly came unglued, allowing Murray & Co. to rack up 287 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime. And as an offense that seemed to seize control — flexing its versatility with varied formations and better play-calling — inexplicably gave it up, committing a handful of holding penalties and converting just three of 10 third downs after halftime.

Try as they might, the Lions simply couldn’t get out of their own way Sunday. And the mistakes weren’t limited to the play on the field.

Time ouch

Take that would-be third-down conversion by the Lions with 2:47 to play in the fourth quarter, for instance. Stafford found running back J.D. McKissic with a wide-open pass out of the backfield — the perfect call against a Cardinals blind-side blitz — only to find the play was blown dead because the Lions’ coaching staff frantically called a timeout from the sideline just as the ball was snapped.

Patricia said he was the one who called it afterward, though it was offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell who gave the signal on the sideline. Whatever the case, the head coach wasn’t exactly apologizing for it later.

“That’s a gotta-have-it situation,” Patricia explained. “The play clock was running down. Call it zero (seconds), call it one. Whatever it was in that situation, we’d rather be in third-and-5 than third-and-10.”

Call it another coaching blunder in the end, though. Instead of first-and-10, the Lions faced third-and-5 again, and after the timeout, Stafford’s pass intended for Kenny Golladay fell incomplete. The Lions’ quarterback was livid by the time he got to the sideline himself, and as he pulled on his ball cap, the Fox TV cameras captured his frustration boiling over as he walked away from Patricia yelling, “Trust me! Trust me!”

A moment later — and I trust everyone saw this coming, right? — poor protection on Sam Martin’s punt led to a partial block for the Cardinals, who took over at their own 40-yard line. Several plays later, Murray found veteran Larry Fitzgerald — the ageless future Hall of Famer came up huge Sunday — in the end zone for a touchdown. And then after a successful 2-point attempt, the Lions’ fate felt like it was all but sealed.

Overtime began with a coin flip. The Cardinals won it. And though no one had actually won the game when it mercifully ended 10 minutes and two field goals later, the Lions couldn’t help but feel like they’d lost.

“It feels awful to feel like you played well enough to win, and have it end in a tie,” said Devon Kennard, who finished with three sacks — all in the first half.

About all he could say beyond that was that it was time to “get back to work.”

“And remember this feeling,” Kennard added. “We don’t want this feeling again.”

But that’s easier said than done, obviously.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo